United Kingdom

Manchester Arena bombing: Fire chief describes feeling 'ashamed' after late arrival of crew

A fire chief said he 'felt ashamed to be a firefighter' after a sobbing paramedic asked crews why they were 'stood around' instead of helping victims of the Manchester Arena bombing a mile away, an inquiry heard today.  

The first fire engine did not arrive at the scene until two hours after terrorist Salman Abedi blew himself up on May 22 2017, killing 22 people and injuring hundreds more at the end of an Ariana Grande concert.

Retired fire officer Alan Topping said specialist teams who could have treated and moved casualties needed to be there 'within five to 10 minutes' and that  by the time they arrived they were 'not really going to offer that much help'.

The inquiry, which is looking at events before, during and after the suicide bombing, heard that Mr Topping, a duty command support officer on the night 'felt ashamed to be a firefighter' in the aftermath of the attack.

'We didn't respond and we didn't do our jobs to make a difference,' he told inquiry chairman Sir John Saunders. 'It took me a couple of days to put my shirt back on such was the strength of my feelings.' 

He explained he was not even aware of the blast at 10.31pm until he received a call from his control room more than a hour later which informed him of 'loads of casualties' and also reports of a gunman.

On his return from dealing with a mill fire in Stockport, Mr Topping assumed colleagues were already at the Arena and said he expected 'something like 10/12 pumps with specialist teams would have attended with lots of officers as well'.

Soon after Mr Topping was deployed to Thompson Street fire station in Manchester city centre and was 'shocked' on his arrival at about 12.25am when he saw five fire engines on the forecourt 'with a lot of firefighters hanging around, some lying down'.

Retired fire officer Alan Topping told an inquiry today that firefighters should have been at the Manchester Arena bombing scene within 10 minutes. In fact it took two hours for the first engine to arrive. Mr Topping said he 'felt ashamed,' after the attack

The inquiry heard one distressed female paramedic approached a firefighter who recalled: 'She came over crying, pleading with us to go over and help. 'Her exact words were, 'what are you doing just stood around here? There are people dying, we need your help''

Victims of Manchester Arena bombing were denied 'vital assistance' as they lay injured and dying in foyer, public inquiry hears 

Victims of the Manchester Arena bombing were denied 'vital assistance' as they lay dying and injured in the foyer, a public inquiry into the terror attack was told.

Fire crews with specialist equipment and training were not mobilised to enter the City Room foyer where Salman Abedi detonated an explosive killing 22 people in May 2017, and the first fire engine did not arrive until more than two hours later.

Police declared a marauding terrorist firearms attack some 16 minutes after the blast but did not inform the fire and ambulance services.

It was said only one paramedic entered the scene in the first 40 minutes after the explosion. 

A similar omission happened a year earlier at a training exercise involving a mock terrorist on the loose at the Trafford Centre and led to a 90-minute delay of fire and ambulance services arriving at that scene, the inquiry has heard.

Exercise Winchester Accord in May 2016 was labelled 'a disaster' by inquiry chair Sir John Saunders as fire chiefs concluded that the police's focus was on 'neutralising the situation rather than what the other agencies needed to do'.

He said: 'It just didn't feel right, it didn't feel like a normal incident to me.'

Mr Topping told Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry, there was 'a lot of anger, upset, confusion' among the crews who were impatient at being kept away from the scene. He said there were many ambulances and paramedics at the station who were being mobilised to the incident.

The inquiry heard one distressed female paramedic approached a firefighter who recalled: 'She came over crying, pleading with us to go over and help.

'Her exact words were, 'what are you doing just stood around here? There are people dying, we need your help. I have just taken an 18-year-old girl in the back of an ambulance who died en route to hospital and you lot are just stood around'.'

The firefighter then spoke to Mr Topping who admitted he had as little understanding of the reasons for the inaction, although he told the inquiry that senior colleagues waiting at the station said their bosses were not allowing them to attend.

The inquiry has heard previously that police declared a marauding terrorist firearms attack amid erroneous reports of gunfire but failed to inform the fire and ambulance services and none of the three blue light services met at a rendezvous point to discuss a planned response.

Mr Topping agreed with John Cooper QC, representing the bereaved families, that the scene at Thompson Street 'felt wrong' because important resources and services his colleagues could have provided were 'simply wasted'.

Mr Cooper asked if it was correct that 'many, if not all' firefighters turned their back on a senior officer when he was unable to give them answers about the lack of response at a debriefing shortly after the attack.

Mr Topping said: 'People showed their emotions differently whether it was turning away, walking away... people were crying. I have never seen firefighters crying at a debrief. 

'Firefighters and officers felt such shame, disappointment, all words you could use to describe why we didn't attend that incident to help people. 

'I felt ashamed to be a firefighter and I felt like we had let the people of Greater Manchester down. We were there to help and we didn't do our job. I just feel so sad we didn't attend for the families.'

He said he no longer felt ashamed as he now knew the reasons why they did not attend but he was still saddened.

Mr Topping told the inquiry that on his retirement last September he still felt that joint working between the emergency services in Greater Manchester had not improved sufficiently.  

Today, watch manager Andrew Simister told the inquiry that a 'massive decision error' meant city centre fire crews drove in the opposite direction from Manchester Arena 20 minutes after the May 2017 blast. 

The experienced firefighter said crews at Manchester Central Fire Station, less than a mile away, were expecting to be mobilised after news of the explosion was 'all over social media' and colleagues in the east of the city rang to ask why they were still at the station after a bomb had gone off.  

Salman Abedi killed 22 men, women and children in the blast in May 2017. The inquiry is looking at events before, during and after the suicide bombing

Instead he and his colleagues were diverted two miles to a rendezvous point at Philips Park Fire Station rather than a three-minute journey to the arena, he said. 

Mr Simister said: 'We wanted to go the arena because that's our job, ride a fire engine. We have got first aid capabilities. After an explosion people are in distress and it's our job to go. I thought we were going there (Philips Park) because they had a plan. There was no plan.'

More information about the blast appeared on TV news as they waited at Philips Park, he said, but there was still no explanation from bosses as to why there were and not at the arena.

At about 11.25pm a Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) group manager arrived and was confronted by angry firefighters, he said.

Mr Simister said: 'The frustration had built up because we were sick of waiting for someone to come and tell us what we were doing. In the end he told us to back off because we were aggressive, if you like, because of the frustration and anger we had not been sent.'

Further exasperation followed, he said, as his crews were sent back to Manchester Central in Thompson Street as they travelled in a convoy of vehicles and were greeted around midnight by 'a sea of ambulances'.

He told the inquiry: 'Obviously the ambulance service must have been using Manchester Central as a holding area and then calling them into the arena. By the time we got to Central I was deflated, frustrated and I just didn't think we were going to go. There was anger, there was a lot of anger, we should have gone. We just needed mobilising to the scene.'

After the attack Mr Simister gave a statement in which he said: 'Where the bomb was detonated, casualties would have had to be helped down a set of stairs on to the station concourse. This must have been done by members of the public, railway staff, arena staff, the homeless, the police and ambulance staff, using advertising hoardings.

'We sat in two fire station yards with the equipment, the manpower and the training for just this sort of incident. This may have made a difference to the incident if we had been allowed to do our job.'

He said deploying to Philips Park was a 'massive decision error' and told the inquiry it was the wrong location for a rendezvous point and Manchester Central would have been better.

The officer, employed by GMFRS for 26 years, added: 'It was our public duty to have responded straight away and help those people. It is my opinion that as a service we failed because of poor decision-making and it must not happen again.'

Mr Simister told inquiry chairman Sir John that senior management made the wrong decisions which led to a 'complete negation of what the fire service is all about'.

He said: 'It just seemed like the senior officers then were not interested in the operational side of firefighting, more after their own careers and to get promoted as quick as they could. And at the end of the day they have all started where we all started as firefighters.

'But I must say the the culture has changed recently. We have got some good station managers moving up and we have got a new chief officer that listens.'

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